The Wallace Collection

Turtleshell, Piqué Counter Box, c.1729-1750
Encyclopédie, ou Dictionnaire raisoné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, Diderot 1772
Encyclopédie, ou Dictionnaire raisoné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, Diderot 1772
Treasure of the Month - April 2012

Turtleshell, Piqué Counter Box, c.1729-1750

This counter box was made in the early 18th century, probably in Naples, Italy. It is made of turtleshell with gold decoration, using a technique called Piqué, from the French piquer, to prick. Naples was a major centre of production of this type of work, however little is known about the workers themselves, known as tarturugi (turtleshell-men), as only a few pieces are signed. One known craftsman, Gennaro Sarao, was the turtleshell worker for the royal household. Small items like this box were often found and brought back to England by tourists visiting Italy as part of the Grand Tour.
The scenes depicted on top are in the Chinoiserie style. Chinoiserie is a 19th century term, which became used to describe objects in the eastern style along with imports from India, Japan and China. The scenes create an idealised fantasy world, in which the plants and animals are unusual and exotic, and the people are graceful and relaxed in their earthly paradise.   There are at least two other boxes with the same pattern known to exist, but the source of the print has yet to be found.

Inside the elaborately decorative box is a gilt tray with four compartments meant for holding cards or counters; each tray has an inlaid mother of pearl symbol, one for each suit. It is thought that this box was meant specifically for a French game called “Reversis” which was popular among the French aristocracy of the 18th and 19th centuries. It is a game for four players, using cards and counters with differing values. During the game the players have to put counters in a basket, or perhaps in this case the accompanying tray, displayed alongside the box.  Playing cards was an important social pastime for the aristocracy; it indicated that you had wealth and status enough to gamble and also good manners in being able to win or lose in a gracious manner.

Turtleshell was a very expensive material because of the animal it came from; the Hawksbill Turtle which can only be found in the coasts off the West Indies or Africa, which was a long and dangerous journey for the merchants to bring back. Over the years hunting for the Hawksbill has led the turtle to become an endangered species.

When warmed, turtleshell becomes a natural plastic; soft and malleable so that it can be moulded to any shape. Tiny gold pins and shapes can be inserted into the surface. As the shell cools it shrinks, thus tightening the holes and securing the gold decoration in place. This page from Diderot's Encyclopédie, shows the tools of the trade of Piquémakers, and also some craftsmen hard at work - it is interesting to note that the picture shows some women in the workshop; it was thought that women had better eyesight and a more delicate hand than men.

Gallery Talks
Thursday 5 and Tuesday 24 April at 1pm with Carmen Holdsworth-Delgado, Curatorial Assistant

Further Reading
Piquet: A Beautiful Minor Art, Charles Dent, 1923
Chinese Whispers: Chinoiserie in Britain 1650-1930, edited by David Beevers, Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton and Hove, 3 May – 2 November 2008.